January is a quiet time in the garden and the short dark days can start to get you down, with the promise of spring blooms a seemingly long way off. facts
But just think; while your garden is all tucked up in winter hibernation, there’s a garden out there somewhere in the world that’s in full bloom. And it won’t be long before yours is too, so hang in there and read on for ten amazing plant facts that are sure to boost your mood this January…
1. All alcohol comes from plants
Without plants, we would have nothing to drink. All alcoholic beverages are made from plants: beer is made from hops, wine and sherry are made with grapes and tequila is made from agave cactus plants.
Whisky is made from fermented grains and vodka is made from grains or potatoes… however unfortunately these do not count as one of your five-a-day.
The plants are fermented, which is a process where yeast breaks down the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
2. Carrots were originally purple
Up until the 17 Century, cultivated carrots were purple. You can thank patriotic Dutch growers for today’s ubiquitous orange carrots.
Orange is the national colour of the Netherlands, thanks to William I of Orange who liberated the Netherlands from Spanish control, leading eventually to an independent Dutch state. In the late 16th Century, Dutch growers began to breed together mutant white and yellow strains of the traditional purple carrot to develop orange carrots.
As well as national pride, the success of the orange carrots can be attributed to their sweetness and thick, fleshy root, making them more productive than purple strains. However, purple carrots are seeing a renaissance in many vegetable gardens and even some supermarkets.
3. Saffron comes from flowers
Saffron comes from a crocus flower. It grows as the long red stamen of the autumn-flowering crocus sativus. Each flower has three saffron stamen.
Saffron is famous for being one of the world’s most expensive spices. This is because it is so difficult to harvest – the stamen are usually hand-picked from the flower head. The flowers must be harvested as soon as they bloom, as they begin to wilt very quickly. The harvesting process for a whole saffron farm is intense and laborious.
Saffron was first cultivated in Greece and is a common spice for flavour and colour in Mediterranean dishes, including Spanish paella. It’s surprisingly easy to grow in the UK as long as you have a sunny spot – it even thrives in containers!
4. Cranberries float
Cranberries contain small pockets of air that allows them to float on water. They grow on the branches of woody shrubs and commercial growers cultivate them in a basin. When they are ready for harvesting, the growers flood the basin with water and all the cranberries float to the surface.
Then they use a water reel harvesting machine to remove the cranberries from the bushes, which stay floating on the surface. Finally a suction machine pumps them up and then they are sent off to be packed.
5. Sunflowers have many flowers
A sunflower looks like one large yellow flower, but in fact the flowers are in the dark central circle, which is a big disc of hundreds of tiny florets. These are pollinated and ripen to become the seeds.
The big yellow petals around the outside are there to guide pollinating insects to the tiny florets in the middle that actually bear the pollen. The same is true of all plants in the sunflower family, including asters, daisies and yarrow.
6. Peanuts are not really nuts
They are actually legumes related to beans and lentils. In fact, true nuts are less common than you think. A nut is defined as a dry fruit with one (or very occasionally two) seeds that becomes hard at maturity. True nuts include pecans, acorns and sweet chestnuts.
But almonds, pistachios, cashews, monkey nuts, coconuts and pine nuts are not nuts. Neither are Brazil nuts, which in Brazil are called chestnuts and are actually cultivated mainly in Bolivia.
Many foods we think of as nuts are actually seeds contained in a hard capsule or pod. The outer material is known as the fruit. True nuts have the seed and pod contained as one.
7. Tulips once caused an economic crash
Tulipomania or Tulip Mania was a 17 century frenzy that saw the price of tulip bulbs rise astronomically and then crash. It is considered to be the first economic or speculative bubble.
In Europe in the 1630s, the popularity of tulips was so great that they became immensely valuable. A sizeable industry built up in the Netherlands around selling and trading rare tulip bulbs.
Records show a single tulip bulb selling for 3000 florins – a skilled tradesman at the time only earned 150 florins per year.
Eventually the price rose so high that the market collapsed, the value of tulip bulbs dropped dramatically and many people lost money. Fortunately, today tulips are much cheaper and more readily available. Meanwhile, the Netherlands are still a world-leading producer of tulips.
8. Pineapples grow on the ground
Did you know that pineapples grow from the base on a low-growing spiky plant in fields? Many people assume that they hang down from trees, but this is wrong.
The word ‘pineapple’comes from European explorers who found it growing in the tropical Americas. They thought it looked like a pine cone but tasted like an apple. In most other languages it is known as a variation of ‘ananas’ – French, German, Italian, Russian, Arabic… they all agree.
One small exception is Spain, where people have the word ananás, but also use piña, as in piña colada!
9. Plants help their siblings
Canadian scientists found that plants can recognise when neighbouring plants come from the same parent plant, and so don’t compete with them for root space and resources.
The evolutionary reason is thought to be that sibling plants share much of their DNA, and not aggressively competing with your relatives increases the chances of passing your DNA on.
10. Cannabis and hops are from the same plant family
When scientists first began to classify plants into groups, cannabis and hops were placed in the same group because they have similar leaves.
However, modern-day DNA testing found that many plants which look similar are in fact not related at all.
But in a happy twist, research has found that cannabis (Cannabis sativa) and hops (Humulus lupulus) are indeed genetically related and still belong in the same family.